“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.
The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.
Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.
Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.
I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.
When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.
Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.
I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).
I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.
Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.
This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.
Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.
Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:
Thus says the LORD,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the LORD of hosts is his name:
If this fixed order were ever to cease
from my presence, says the LORD,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
to be a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.
Joy and Peace,
Air Dry Clay Recipe Using More Baking Soda (better recipe)
Reasons to Preheat the Oven